Chapter 30 – Exchange

"You do not even know where you are, do you?"

Samsara strained her ears to hear the voice in her headset, now the original voice, the nicer one. She shook her head in answer to the question.

"You do know that you are surrounded, correct? A circle. Do as I say and you will survive."

Thinking this over, Samsara concluded that she had little choice but to trust the voice; she was practically unarmed (one hammer against a pack of invisible monsters?), disoriented, and blind, so what else was there? Steeling up her courage, she nodded and whispered to herself that she wanted to know how to procede.

"Walk forward," said the voice.

She did, until she could feel the warm breath of the monster in front of her pressing against the skin on her neck. Thinking about how it was tall enough to breathe on her neck, as opposed to her knees, made her shiver.

"When I say so, run in a circle to your right," commanded the voice. "Run all the way around, and do it three times. I am counting. Ready... now!"

Samsara darted to her right. A rush of air pushed against her, and a snapping noise exploded behind her like the sound of a bear trap clamping shut. She could both feel and smell another monster still to her left as she ran, and then another and another, all the way around the circle. Her head spun until she nearly forgot where she started. In fact, she lost her sense of space and direction, but throughout she remembered to count how many monsters she passed, and she counted in sets of three. Since the voice had told her to make the circuit three times, the total number of monster snaps would be a multiple of three when she finished. Thirty-six: there were three monsters for every quarter circle, she had concluded before losing her bearings, and so she continued, blind, frightened, and lost, yet able to count, and the counting would allow her to follow her instructions. If the voice in her head had not lied, then the counting would save her.

Instinct made her turn ninety degrees to the right upon completing her third time around and the thirty-seventh set of jaws attempted to maul her, and when she reached the center of the circle again, she heard the voice, the nice one, in her ear: "Excellent. The monsters expect prey in the center of their circle not to approach the perimeter. You have confounded their expectations while completing your objective."

For a brief moment that felt much longer, nothing happened. No sound came from the headset speaker or from the circle of predators or from Samsara herself.

Then, from the speaker: "Ipso facto, meeny moe, MAGICO!"

"What?" Samsara wondered.

"You are now fortified with magic. Do you wish to try it out?"

Samsara said nothing, but something inside of her moved. It was something mysterious and foreign to her, but at the same time, it felt familiar. Reliable. Powerful, like a parent watching over a child sleeping in a bed at night. A warm night. She felt the salty sea breeze fade as her mother closed the window and drew the curtains, blotting out the moonlight and the sound of crickets and the leaves rustling in the trees outside. Her cradle grew warm, then hot, then unbearably hot. The air around her crackled and simmered, and, memories shattered, Samsara drew her legs together, leaned on her toes, and pulled her arms across her chest, her chin pointed defiantly skyward.

With a whoosh and a rumbling whistle, the air around Samsara grew hotter still until it could bear no more heat, and then it exploded outward from her in a ring, scorching her skin, making her eyes water, and choking her breath away, and compared to the monsters around her, she was at ease.

All at once the monsters cried out in pain, very briefly, some moaning, some barking, and some turning to run, but then they all fell silent. The paws scratching the ground, the barking and growling, and even the breathing stopped.

"Do you feel as if you are in an oven?" asked the voice. "That is natural the first time. You may feel discomfort, but you will grow accustomed to the discomfort, and you yourself will come to no harm when you invoke your new power."

"My power?" Samsara did not quite understand.

"I misspoke," said the voice, "but it is still your power. Allow it to be your ally in this dark world."

"You know where I am, then? I thought I was going to jail."

"You are where you need to be," said the voice. "I, too, am where I need to be right now, and my task will be to guide you until you can once again move on your own."

"How did I get here?" Samsara asked the question at the top of the heap of questions piled in the center of her mind at the moment.

"You came the same way I did," the voice answered. "Someone holding great animosity for you cast you into the void in an effort to rid himself of you while leaving no trace of you behind. It is what you might call the perfect murder."

"Then I'm... dead?"

"I do not know," said the voice. "Furthermore, I do not know how I could determine one way or the other. What I do know is that, whatever one might label your life's status right now, you are able to move and think, and that should be enough to act on the world and perhaps enough to save it, yourself, and others whose lives are important to you. Perhaps mine is also important to you, or yours to me, and that is why I am able to help you now."

"Why help me? I don't even recognize you."

"If you could see," said the voice, "you might, or you might not. Most likely you would not."

"That's another thing," said Samsara. "Why can't I see anything? Is there nothing to see here?"

"There is plenty," said the voice. "However, I am afraid you may have lost your sense of sight when you lost your eyes."

"When I..." Samsara paused. The words sank in.

"I lost my what?" An intense ache flooded Samsara's head, almost as if it had already been there, but she had ignored it to the point where it had ceased to exist, and then thinking about it brought it back.

"I did not see it happen," said the voice, "but when you arrived here, despite the advanced sight enhancement apparatus attached to your face, you had no eyes, and eyes are what enable us to see."

"You mean you could not see my eyes, right?" Samsara's voice was now full of worry.

"Now is not an optimal time to concern yourself with such a small matter. If you do things correctly, you should find your eyes again before this is all over. In the meantime, however, for your sake and mine, you must find your way out of here, find the one you sent you here, and find a way to bring me with you. As long as I am here, I lack the means to fulfill my duties in my world, as you lack the means to fulfill your own."

"I get it," said Samsara. "We were both thrown into this void, and there is nothing we can do about anything else until we find a way out. I'll never know what happened to Jinling Lan, to Jin, and I"ll never have revenge on the man who hurt her. Killed her, I mean. I mean, I know what happened to her, but I don't know why or how, and I don't know what to do about it, and..." Her voice cracked.

"Miss Lan," the voice repeated. "Your duty is to find her?"

"To find her killer," said Samsara. "She was murdered, and the police think I did it."

"That makes little sense. I can guess from your tone that you and Miss Lan were close enough to be friends, and thus I find it hard to believe that any competent police force interested in justice would suspect you of her murder."

"They do. They arrested me. Knocked me out, and I woke up here."

"Please allow me to illustrate your predicament with a fable," said the voice. "If you can, imagine three blind men and an elephant. Each blind man wishes to know the true nature of the elephant, and yet each overgeneralizes from small, non-representative parts of the elephant. One reaches the conclusion that the elephant is like a tree; this he believes because he feels the elephant's legs, which are round and stout like tree trunks. Another supposed the elephant to be like a kite; this conclusion he reaches through feeling the elephants ears. The third decides that the elephant is like a snake; he so thinks because he feels the elephant's trunk. You, on the other hand, conclude that the police believe you to be a killer merely because your firsthand experience has you arrested, but it is quite possible that something else entirely is afoot, and you have only begun to discover the true nature of the events now unfolding."

"And you know?" Samsara asked pointedly.

"I do not," said the voice. "I only know how to reason from the facts given to me. Anything beyond it outside of my ken."

"Excellent," said Samsara. "I'm alone, I cannot see, I do not know where I am, I know only a fraction of what is going on, and I have a voice in my head that doesn't know anything more than I do. Tell me, are you at a radio station now? Just who are you?"

"I am but a voice," it answered. "I do not know my true nature, but I may be like the elephant in the story. From a certain point of view, I may be like another person, from another I may be like a friend, and from yet another, I may be nothing more than a dream in your head, a dream trapped in there your entire life, escaping only to be locked in a new prison in this world, this Darkness Beyond Time."

"I really have lost it. I really have. There went the last of my sanity. I can't really be lost... wait, the Darkness Beyond Time?"

"I said as much."

And then, through all of the pain and confusion and everything else pushing her emotions in just about every other direction, Samsara felt that familiar burst of triumph well up inside, just like every time she discovered a solution to a problem. It was her favorite feeling, and she allowed herself a smile, a smile she felt she quite richly deserved.

"I'm going to get us both out of this," she said, "and if we are really lucky, and my suspicions are correct, I think I might even be able to save Jin."

"Is this the same Jinling Lan yous said was murdered?"

"That's the one."

XXX

The same Jinling Lan, in fact, faced a problem quite similar to the Samsara's, but she faced it alone in the middle of a vast desert next to the wreckage of the Golden Days.

She found herself lying on her back in the middle of a mound of sand outside of the ship. Without even thinking about what she was doing, she rubbed her hand over a lump on the right side of her head. Her mouth was dry from the desert air, and when she licked her lips to soften them, she tasted a cuprous paste spread over the top, probably a relic of her broken nose. The last thing she remembered was a fight with a man in the laboratory, after which she was dragged, consciousness rapidly fading, into the Golden Days.

Filling in the pieces between what she remembered and what she now saw, Jinling concluded that she had crashed somewhere, and if her assailant had come with her on the timeship journey, he had left her for dead in the middle of the desert, nothing to be seen for miles and miles in any direction.

At least, she thought, the Golden Days did not explode when operated. Unlike the prototype.

Where in time was she, though? The ship's instrument panel might have an answer for her, if it had survived the crash in any readable form, so she crawled through the broken side door and onto the bridge, where she kicked aside piles of shattered glass and scanned the panels at the front of the room for the dial she wanted. The Linear Temporal Destination Display, or LTD, though its face was cracked and its needle bent, clearly pointed to the setting at the extreme clockwise end of the dial, the End of Time. The moldy orange sky and actual terrain outside indicated that she was not, in fact, at the End of Time, or at least that where she was in no way resembled the End of Time she had read about in so many books and so many reports by Balthasar himself. Clearly, then, she had not just jumped to a distant location on the linear timeline.

This, then, meant that all the research she had done with Samsara had led to a conclusion that was right: there was something else out there, and they had figured out how to get there. And now, with her ship in desperate need of repairs and her supplies limited to whatever she could find in the ship's tiny kitchen, she had every reason explore this new uncharted territory. She'd finally found it, so now it was time to discover just what she'd found.